Puppet Designer Carole D’Agostino
If you’ve seen Sesame Street, you already know the puppet creations of puppet designer and puppeteer Carole D’Agostino. Early on, she fell in love with puppetry as an engaging art form that was for everyone. Today she is a sought-after puppeteer and a puppet fabricator for TV, movies, and stage productions and works with the famed Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia.
KC: How does the process begin for creating puppets for a show like Pigeon?
CD: The process for creating a puppet will vary depending on the story. In the case of Pigeon, I have Mo Willems’s artwork that tells me what the final look needs to be. My job as Puppet Designer is to accurately interpret the two-dimensional design into three dimensions that are also functional and durable for theater. I try to imagine the character from many angles. I create a maquette or scale model to help me communicate my ideas to the team and then move forward when everyone agrees that the caricature best represents the artwork.
KC: How do you decide how the puppets will operate and what they will be made of?
CD: How a puppet is operated is based on what best tells the story in the space provided. In this case, the director and writers were excited about the idea of hand and rod puppets as seen in many popular Broadway shows. That style is popular and accessible for American theater. They accepted that the puppeteer would be in full view of the audience, and I was happy to support their vision. The materials are based on a few factors: cost, weight, durability, and function.
KC: How would you describe the style of puppetry in this show?
CD: The Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta describes this style of puppetry where the performers are in full view of the audience with no effort to conceal how the puppet is moved as “Overt Puppetry.” Some folks will colloquially refer to this style as “Avenue Q” puppetry but that Broadway production was not the first to invent the technique—though it was brought to the mainstream musical theater audience via that show.
KC: What are the types of puppets for the show?
- Pigeon: The Pigeon is a hand and rod moving mouth puppet performed in an overt style. You may have seen this style in the Broadway version of Avenue Q, but also the Muppets have performed some recent live shows this way—though their TV puppets still conceal the performer. This style is very popular in modern American puppetry.
- Duckling: The primary puppet of Duckling is a hand puppet—specifically a glove puppet. He has no arm rods—the wings and his head are operated by the performer’s fingers inside. His beak does not move but you know he is speaking by his manipulation and focus.
- Bus: The Bus puppet is a moving mouth hand puppet as well. The only rod on him controls the windshield wiper. He’s basically a foam box with a moving mouth.
- Puppy: The Puppy is a giant plush with straps on his back and head. We could call him a type of hand puppet. He is not a body puppet (that is more like a mascot, a la Phillie Phanatic, the official mascot for the Philadelphia Phillies Major League Baseball team). His mouth does move, but the movement comes from a weight in his jaw so when the performer manipulates a strap between his ears, the head bops and the jaw opens and the floppy pink tongue waggles—it’s quite funny! He also has a strap on his back, like a suitcase, so the performer can walk him and flop him around. The Puppy is four feet long from tip to tail but barely weighs 10 pounds. Most folks have purses and backpacks with more heft.
KC: What materials are each of these puppets made of?
CD: All these puppets have some form of foam and fleece in their construction. The Pigeon has several foams to make his shape sturdy yet lightweight. He also has lightweight corset boning in his neck. The Pigeon’s fleece is called “Antron fleece” which has been custom-dyed for this production. His eyes are specially molded and cast plastic domes made to be visible from the front and side of the head. Duckling is also specially dyed Antron fleece on the outside, but the inside is foam and a neoprene fabric that is soft and pliable but still offers a bit of internal structure. The Puppy has four different foams that make up his body as well as some excellent fur. His tongue is microfiber and his collar is patent leather. The Bus is two kinds of soft foam but it has a sturdier foam structure inside to prevent the walls from caving in. Bus is covered in a microfiber with a spandex applique.
KC: What should young audiences watch for regarding the puppets in the show?
CD: I hope young audiences will love the story and enjoy The Pigeon as a character and not worry about the nuts and bolts of the puppetry. However, as someone who was hungry for that information growing up, I’ll add that audiences of any age can observe the teamwork that goes into making the puppet come alive. See how the other actors relate to the puppet as if it were really alive. And finally, understand that puppetry is an art form that takes practice, perseverance, and passion to truly convey the story to an audience.
KC: How do you as the designer/builder work with Scottie Rowell, the puppet director?
CD: Scottie and I communicate about how to best make the actor comfortable using the puppet as a storytelling tool. What can I do as a builder to make the puppet light and easy for the actor? I show Scottie the features and benefits of the puppet and he tells me what might help on stage—eye focus, arm rod length, and so forth. He offers clues to the choreography that I might not have, being removed from rehearsal process, so I can provide options for him on stage.
KC: Can you share any tips for young children for making and bringing to life their own puppets?
CD: Yes! Puppets are everywhere now. I suggest lots of easy tips like: draw every day—draw characters, draw movement, draw shapes. I recommend getting good at math. Why? Because half of good puppetry is understanding physics and geometry. Also experiment with materials, which is hard when you’re just starting out, but there are lots of options for tutorials as well as classes and workshops in your community.
KC: What activities do you recommend for exploring more about puppetry?
CD: I recommend getting involved in live theater. Theater uses real-life experiences and games to engage everyone. Theater is where you grow and learn about performing and you’ll inadvertently end up building things like props and sets because you have to in order to have a show. Even young children can find local theater workshops that cater to their age group. Kids in remote areas can find puppet shows at their library—many touring puppet companies perform at libraries and have workshops along with a show.
I also suggest young people explore beyond American television puppetry and look into shadow puppets of Asia and Australia. Explore the Bunraku theater of Japan that inspires our American tabletop style of puppetry today. Look at European marionettes, which vary from the dynamic Sicilian style to the tiny Czech versions to the elegant German styles. Even just seeing what Punch and Judy is all about might encourage a funny hand puppet show with hilarious social commentary. Any of these are opportunities for learning with grownups as well—what lessons can we get from the shows? What do you like? What would you do differently? Puppetry as an art form sparks conversation.
KC: What attracted you to puppetry?
CD: I began my journey at age 11 in a summer youth program at a community theater. I fell in love with puppetry when I discovered the Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont. Bread and Puppet Theater was making spectacle shows and huge outdoor pageants that looked nothing like what I was seeing on television. It was not for kids—it was for everyone and that made me want to pursue puppetry as a career. I am still passionate today because it brings me joy to create the work and share my voice with the world.
KC: How would you describe puppetry as an art form?
CD: There are so many forms of puppetry around the world—not just the kind you see on TV every day. Puppetry is a global art form and is absolutely not just for children. It is an ancient form of communication that is honored all over the world. Puppetry is a cohesive, cumulative, multidisciplinary art form. You are a better performer if you understand how to build. You are a better builder if you understand how it will be performed. The more diversity you have in your skill set, the better your work can be. The more work you see out in the world, the more likely you are to make a better show and tell a better story.
KC: Why use puppets to tell a story?
CD: Because the puppet as a vessel allows the audience members to step outside themselves and imagine. The puppet forces the audience to think and engage in the story to form connections and suspend disbelief. Not everyone admits to being able to suspend disbelief but if you can watch a movie with dinosaurs, superheroes, or aliens then you must admit to enjoying puppetry. Even movies with computer-generated images use puppetry to manipulate the dots on a form to capture that motion. Even the most cynical among us has had our heart strings tugged by Mr. Rogers and his puppet characters. People use puppets because they work. They use them because the puppet is a powerful tool that crosses cultural barriers and transcends time to bring the magic of storytelling into the tangible world.
Puppet Director Scottie Rowell
After touring theater shows came through his small home town, young Scottie Rowell discovered how much he loved storytelling and bringing puppets to life. Today, he specializes in creating interactive and immersive experiences for young audiences through his company, Teller Productions. As Puppet Director for Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (The Musical!) he makes sure all the puppetry works on stage—if you think the puppets are believable, Scottie has a lot to do with it.
KC: What attracted you to puppetry?
SR: I got started in storytelling in Franklin County, Georgia, where I grew up. With no performing arts center in my small town, my exposure was limited to traveling college troupes that would perform at the library. But I loved telling stories—and so I did it on my own, and I started making my own puppets to have more characters. I was also really obsessed with the manipulation of objects and bringing them to life.
Later on, when I was attending college, I worked at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta as a puppet builder and designer. But I really missed the storytelling and solo performance nature that I learned to love from those touring shows I saw as a kid. Then I launched Teller Productions to capture and present a wider variety of performing that I love.
KC: Why do you like working with young audiences?
SR: Kids are the most responsive audience you could ask for. They will more easily focus on the puppet not the puppeteer—they focus on what their imagination is seeing. When something isn’t believable, they let you know.
Kids totally get puppetry. They understand that this thing can be living and breathing—that’s what they do with their toys. And they are far more patient than adults. They will sit through a 45-minute show to see what a puppet is going to do and how they can engage with it.
KC: For this show, you are the puppet director. What’s involved in that job?
SR: A puppet director is a combination choreographer, coach, dramaturg, and props person, plus connection with puppet builders. First, we are like choreographers for puppets—we are there to help fulfill the director’s vision. The director expresses intentions, and I help connect the dots between those needs and what a puppet and puppeteer can actually do. We answer questions such as if a puppet needs to fly or pick something up, how does that happen? What can each puppet actually do? We figure that out based on the type of puppets and performance and plan puppet movements that are clear and believable. For example, if a puppet needs to pick up a prop and uses its mouth, does it look like it is eating instead of picking up the object? The puppet director makes sure the action communicates what is intended.
We also help with puppet tracking, which is similar to prop tracking. We make sure puppets are in the right places on stage during the show so that performers have them for entrances and exits.
And we’re advocates for the audience. Sometimes it’s easy for directors to think puppets are a cartoon. My job is to stress that this is a living, breathing thing to a child. A performer can’t hit a puppet on the head in a cartoon-like way, because that will be upsetting to the audience.
KC: Pigeon has a choreographer, Jessica Hartman—how do your efforts overlap?
SR: The choreographer works with the human performers, and the puppet director helps with what a foam and fabric piece can do and how to make that believable. We work together to balance each other’s efforts and visions. For example, the Bus-and-Pigeon dream sequence in the show came out of something we call puppet playtime, during which the puppeteers improvise with the puppets and often create funny bits—when they work, the choreographer plans how to blend these into the show. During puppet playtime, we discovered the Bus can do a cha-cha—we’re hoping to work that in, too!
KC: The show has both a puppet director and designer/builder—is that typical and how do you work together?
SR: Not all shows have both directors and designer/builders, but the Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences staff believed puppetry was imperative for this show, and they set up a team to make sure we could achieve the vision of the puppet design as well as performance. They knew the performers would need some guidance in manipulating the puppets, so having a puppet director to train them was a big priority.
The designer, Carole D’Agostino, and I had worked together before and we’re both based in Atlanta, making it easy to collaborate. She had already created designs and began building some of the puppets when I came on board. I’m a connection between her and the rehearsal team.
KC: For a show like this with puppets, what’s the creative process from idea to performance?
SR: When the thought of puppetry comes up, everyone thinks puppetry is cool. But the team creating the performance must ask whether puppetry is what the show really needs. Step one is thinking about why and how puppetry could support the storytelling. It should function similarly to the music in a musical, where the songs express ideas better than dialogue alone could. Puppetry should be part of the show because it can do something that a human in a costume cannot.
There are a number of other advantages. Puppetry gives us the option to play with scale—for example the Pigeon puppet is much larger than a real-life pigeon would be and closer in size to the Bus Driver, which is similar to the book. Another advantage to puppetry is logistics. Puppets can fly, unlike humans, and puppetry is a great way to present the action of flying on stage. Puppets can also get away with a wider range of qualities and behaviors. There’s a wonderful angsty quality to The Pigeon, who has regular outbursts—in a performer that might be annoying but it’s different and funny to have outbursts from a puppet.
Once we decide puppetry works for a show, the next step involves determining the style of puppetry. For this show, writer Mo Willems loved “Overt Puppetry,” where audiences see the puppeteer moving the puppet the whole time and see the puppeteer’s expressions. The creative team also wanted to use soft hand and rod puppets. Kids and audiences of all ages are familiar and comfortable with these kinds of puppets, especially from shows like Avenue Q and Sesame Street. Such comfort and familiarity makes it easy for the creative team to be able to convey the energy of the story right off the bat.
Then we enter the traditional design process. Like costume and scene designers, puppet designers draft designs that fit the needs of the show before building. In this case, the puppets are soft-style. As the designer, Carole must figure out how to translate the book illustrations into fabric and foam, and make sure they look good and operate well on stage.
Next the choreographer and puppet director talk about the movements. We look at how to translate each character’s personality into the performers and puppetry. For example, The Pigeon is very gestural, energetic, and emotional. We work with the director and writers to make sure the puppets support the arc of the whole story.
And finally—we put it all on stage and make sure it works!